Understanding Beer Date Codes

When you go shopping for beer, do you check the date codes before you buy? Knowing when a beer was made can make or break your drinking experience. A beer that is past its prime won't have the same flavor and quality as a fresher brew. But a beer that is too fresh could be overly hoppy. Find out what date codes mean and why it matters what beer you pick from the shelf.

To Drink or Not to Drink: What Date Codes Say About Your Beer

When expiration dates appear on beer, it can be confusing to know when to trust the date and when to toss the bottle. Trying to decipher whether the beer is still drinkable involves understanding the difference between "bottled on" and "best by" dates, as well as the common sense rule for beer storage.

What Does "Bottled On" Really Mean?

"Bottled on" dates are what give beer its shelf life. Since beer is a perishable liquid, it must become stale at some point but having a "bottled on" date helps give assurance that a beer has been made in mostly recent time; generally a couple of months at most. While this gives buyers the assurance that their beer is relatively fresh, this does not necessarily mean that the beer is still drinkable. A buyer must decide for themselves if the beer is still good, as the "bottled on" date only indicates the freshness of the product.

The Difference Between "Best By" and "Bottled On" Dates

When a beer is labeled “best by,” the brewery makes a judgment weighing freshness against shelf life, and, presumably, the brewery’s bottom line. The label’s date serves as a marker for when the beer is at its optimal taste and freshness. Depending on the beer, a “best by” date could mean it’s still consumable and tasty up to six weeks past the date. But it could also mean that it will become stale and hardly drinkable even one week after the label’s date.

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While “best by” dates serve as a gauge for expected peak flavor, “bottled on” dates give buyers a broader picture of the shelf life of the product. Since these dates can vary depending on the type of beer, it’s important to research the different categories. Some tables below explain the general shelf lives of various beer types.

Common Sense Storage Rules Applies to Beer

Regardless of the date on the label, beer should be stored in a cool and dry place, away from direct sunlight. When a beer is stored at higher temperatures, oxidation occurs faster which can cause off flavors and aromas. Lower temperatures can draw out the shelf life of a beer past their expiry date. According to the Brewers Association, beer that’s properly stored should remain in prime condition for several weeks after its “best by” date. Furthermore, proper carbonation and head retention can generally show whether a beer is still drinkable or not. If the beer has minimal amounts of carbonation or fluffy foam, it’s likely past its prime.

Summary of Beer Shelf Lives

It’s important to note that what is listed below are general guidelines for beer. To get accurate shelf life information, breweries typically put “best by” dates on its bottles for the buyer to be aware of. Here are general ranges for the shelf lives of different beer styles:

  • Light-Lagers: 3 months after “best by” date
  • Ales: 4 months after “best by” date
  • IPAs: 2–3 months after “best by” date
  • Stouts and Porters: 6 months after “best by” date

Specialty Beers May Have a Much Longer Shelf Life

Beers with higher alcohol content, or beers that have been aged for a longer period, may have a longer shelf life if properly stored. Barrel-aged beers, for example, may have a shelf life of 6–12 months past its “best by” date if it’s kept at the right temperature and out of light.

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A final note to consider is what type of glass the beer is poured into. For example, if a craft beer or handmade beer is put into a plastic glass, it will not stay as fresh as if it were put into a traditional glass that has been engineered with small bubbles to help retain carbonation. Proper glassware is essential to preserving and enjoying a beer’s flavor and aroma.

In Conclusion

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